Sixers pass first test without Joel Embiid

By Sean Kennedy (@PhillyFastBreak)

Philadelphia 101, Atlanta, 91 – Box Score

Just as everything was finally coming together for the Sixers, the bottom dropped out on their dream season. The recently returned Markelle Fultz collided with Joel Embiid, causing the star center to suffer a concussion and orbital fracture which would require surgery and sideline him for an estimated 2-4 weeks. The tail end of that time period would leave Embiid unable to play in the first round of the playoffs. Understandably, the last two days have seen a Chicken Little “sky is falling” mentality envelop Philadelphia fans.

If their first game without Embiid is any indication though, maybe the sun will keep shining. Granted, Atlanta is on the fast-track to a high lottery pick and their leading scorer Friday night was Damion Lee, a guy who wasn’t in the NBA a couple weeks ago and comes from Philadelphia’s 6th-most well-known college basketball program (love you, Drexel). Still, the Sixers unloaded a whopping 39 points in the third quarter, enabling Brett Brown to empty out the bench with a 27-point lead heading into the fourth. Joel who?

As expected, the Sixers used a committee-approach to pick up the slack for Embiid. Ben Simmons recorded his 5th triple-double of the month with 13 points, 12 rebounds, and 11 assists, not to mention a steal and 2 blocks. Ben has firmly grasped the fact that teams with nothing to play for have no desire to step in front of a 230-pound freight train in transition.

The Sixers also ran a lot more offense through their shooting guards, as J.J. Redick and Marco Belinelli combined to score as many points as the entire Hawks team in the third quarter. Redick finished with 19 points on 8-14 shooting for the game, with only 3 of those attempts coming from behind the arc. The star podcaster has seen his usage rate jump from 21.3% on the season up to 26% the last two games (Embiid having missed most of the Knicks game). We’ll see if that trend holds going forward.

The reinforced bench came through as well, led by Ersan Ilyasova’s 21 points and 16 rebounds. In a game against his former team, Ersan was happy to take all the available shots afforded by Embiid’s absence. His work on the boards allowed the pairing between him and Richaun Holmes to be particular effective. The top-two five-man lineups for the Sixers last night both featured the Ilyasova-Holmes frontcourt. I don’t know how viable those two together are defensively, but they certainly have the potential to blitzkrieg teams offensively with Ilyasova spacing the floor and Holmes rim-running and dunking on fools.

Finally, Markelle Fultz finished with 10 points in 19 minutes off the bench. His huge dunk in semi-transition went viral, but I was much more excited by this fadeaway jumper over Mike Muscala.

That ability to create shots out of nothing is the ingredient the Sixers offense has been lacking this season. Defenses are still staying well off Fultz at the three-point line, but the jumper is still hidden in there somewhere. I remain very encouraged.

Cleveland also won Friday night, keeping the Sixers a half-game back of Cleveland for the third spot in the East. They did move a half-game ahead of idle Indiana. Most importantly, they showed they can still mop the floor against the tankers of the league even without Embiid. Simmons announced after the game that even without the self-proclaimed Process, this group isn’t going anywhere.

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